Friday, 11 November 2016

Gitanjali, by Rabindranath Tagore

( For more poetry analyses, see Great poetry explained: an index to my blogs )

Gitanjali (or Gitanjoli) is the title of what is probably the best-known poetry collection by Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. Tagore was a native of Kolkata (Calcutta) and he wrote in Bengali. Gitanjali translates as “song offerings”, although the word “anjali” translates more closely as “offered prayers”, so the songs being offered should, in Western eyes, be seen rather more as devotions than as secular songs. 

The collection was originally compiled in 1910 as a set of poems in Bengali, but Tagore, who had spent two years in England as a law student, translated these into English for a volume that was finally published in 1912. However, of the 103 poems in the English volume, only 52 came from the original Bengali collection. He added translations from three other collections, some of the poems of which had been written more than ten years previously. The translations were not necessarily made directly from a Bengali poem into an English one; considerable editing was done, with new material added and, on one occasion, two Bengali poems were fused together to make a single English poem.

Tagore visited England again in 1912, taking the manuscript with him, although publication was not his prime motive. He met and mixed with the intelligentsia of London, who came to know his work and greatly admired it. One of them was the Irish poet and near-contemporary W. B. Yeats, who wrote a generous preface to the volume when it was published in 1913.

It is easy to see why Yeats so admired Tagore’s work, as the former would have seen in Gitanjali much of the metaphysical spirit of his own work at that time. However, it is also possible that Yeats saw in Tagore more mysticism than was actually there. Yeats was smitten by the “mystical East”, but Tagore was in many ways a Westernised Indian. The British Raj was at its height during Tagore’s time, with Calcutta one of its main centres. Tagore was a wealthy member of the Brahmin caste, and therefore in regular contact with British rulers and educators. Although he drew on ancient myths and legends for his material, he was by no means a guru or ascetic sitting under a lotus tree and giving forth words of wisdom.

One problem with Gitanjali is that Tagore chose to use old-fashioned “thee” and “thine” modes of address instead of “you” and “your”. This gave the poems a loftiness and archaism that they would not have had otherwise. The poems are intensely personal, some addressed to a deity and others to a human beloved. However, the tone is very similar, whoever is addressed, leading to the conviction that human and divine love are to be seen in the same light. Indeed, Tagore’s message is that it is through human love that love for the divine can be achieved. There are echoes of the poetry of John Donne, or even the Song of Solomon, in the allegorical mixing of human and divine love.

Most of the poems are short and highly approachable, so that they work for virtually any reader, as well today as when first written.

( For more poetry analyses, see Great poetry explained: an index to my blogs )

© John Welford